The Wilkinson dilemma and the search for structure

Controversially, Stuart Peel argues here that England’s hero may actually be harming England’s chances in the World Cup – have your say by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.

Jonny Wilkinson

It is now less than a week until England commence their quest to launch the first ever successful defence of the Web Ellis Cup. The team’s problems since that momentous night in Sydney are well-known. The instalment of Brian Ashton as coach at the start of the year was supposed to herald the introduction of a multi-dimensional attacking game and the dormant chariot was expected to finally creak back into action for an at least creditable defence of the trophy.

Nobody expected Ashton to work his magic overnight.  However the August warm up matches certainly did not breed a great deal of optimism that England have developed a coherent and threatening attacking strategy – the stagnant performances against France yielded more questions than answers and the key one which Ashton must remedy surrounds his talisman.

This may be sacrilege in England rugby circles, but Jonny Wilkinson’s role in the team can create imbalance in attack. His ongoing quest for excellence is well-documented and there is no doubt that he is up there with the finest to have ever worn the red rose.

However in his eagerness to clear every ruck, be the best runner and be all things to all men, he can sometimes forget to actually play fly-half.  On one occasion in Marseilles, England strung together 11 phases of possession – Wilkinson took the ball at first receiver only once, and that was from the original set piece.  Instead we had Shaw, Regan, Lewsey et al. receiving the ball stationary in an orthodox fly-half position rather than tearing at pace on to a Wilkinson pass.  Where was Jonny?  On most occasions he was clearing out at the ruck.

In order to develop a structure and string together several coherent phases and systematically break the opposition down, you need your General pulling the strings. His role is to organise and distribute, to make sure the right people are in the right places at the right time in order to accurately execute what needs to be done.

Wilkinson is now a senior member of the team.  He has always been eager to almost do too much, and in 2002 Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen seemed to spend more time at first receiver than he did.  But the team of 2001-03 had characters that could look after Wilkinson and ensure that first and foremost, he played fly-half.

Now it is down to Ashton to ensure that the jewel in England’s crown doesn’t become a hindrance to the team’s progress.  If the big men are to hit the ball at pace and make yards, and the speedsters are to receive the ball in space at the right time, they need to know how and when the ball will be distributed to them. Wilkinson’s habit of shuffling laterally, looking for a gap and trying to offer something unique makes it very hard for the rest of the team to fulfil their roles.

Do not get me wrong – Wilkinson is a wonderful player.  Before he arrived, never had a kicker been so unerringly accurate; never had a fly-half been the team’s most destructive defender.  The standard of goal-kicking around the world has elevated in response, and the age of the non-tackling fly half is long gone.  These will be among his legacies, but now, England don’t necessarily want the best rugby player in the world, they want the best fly-half.

Dan Carter, to whom Wilkinson is often compared, is a fantastic goal-kicker, a solid defender and a terrific runner.  But first ultimately, he does the bread and butter; he organises and distributes and his team-mates play around him.  England need something similar from Wilkinson in France.

If Ashton is to earn his corn and put together a dominant attacking structure in time for the World Cup, he needs to ensure that his best all-round player is his best fly-half as well.

5 thoughts on “The Wilkinson dilemma and the search for structure

  1. Earl Peel of Surrey does state the obvious – Wilko hits too many rucks and doesn’t do the ‘Dan Carter bread and butter’ work of a fly half… However, 11 phases and no try? Surely Wilko isn’t the only one who can muster up a defencse breaking pass/break on 8,9, 10th phase against (what surely must have been) a strectched defence? Lewsey, a former Enlgand U21 fly half, a few forwards (making the hard yards, is expected) and then either Olly Barkely or Andy Farell at 12 also having a go. Barks has played 10 for england (and well at that), ‘Faz’ has unlocked some of the meanest defences in Rugby League history. Surely it is somewhat harsh to blame the lack of tries becasue Wilko hits 2 or 3 rucks in 11 phases of rugby?
    Either that or We need to get 12, 6, 7 and 8 upping their rucking game so that Wilko doesn’t feel that he needs to hit each ruck, just because he’s 5 yards away. Although, I must admit it is good to know we can hold the ball for 11 phases. And it is always good to see a 10 ruck, because that never happens at London Scottish.

  2. Oh dear, Stuart. You have left yourself wide open for attack here. JW injured; if he’s not fit for SA then we’ll see how much mileage your unprovoked poppycock carries!!! PS it’s no good having someone who runs with a mince for a fly-half, which is why yourself and Toby Flood haven’t made the cut either. Who would you suggest is a better option to JW? Dan Carter? I’d like to hear more on the alternatives please…

  3. Whilst Stuart’s points are undeniable, I think Neil is right in that blaming Wilko because of other’s lack of creativity is harsh. The one man not mentioned here who I think is a key figure is Mike Catt. He has barely played with Jonny in the warm-up games but is the obvious man to help take some of the responsibility of Wilko’s shoulders. (Not sure whether them not playing together has been a deliberate ploy of Ashton’s or not).

    Unfortunately, he remains the one back who seems to know how to run at space and also create space for others. With him in the side Jonny can play his normal game knowing that the first receiver role is in safe hands when he’s at the bottom or a ruck. Also, opposing defences have to spread their resources onto two men rather than focusing solely on Jonny.

    Whether Catt’s ageing body can last the course in France remains to be seen, and god knows what we’ll do when he surely retires following the tournament. Building for 2011, a sustained run for Barkley in the side or even shifting Jonny to 12 and allowing a Geraghty or similar may lead to a creative 10, 12 axis. In the meantime I think Catty is the man to solve this potentially huge problem.

  4. I am not placing the blame wholly on Jonny for the lack of creativity and tries, just observing that if he played in a more traditional way it might bring the best out of those around him.

    He should still be the starting 10 obviously (fitness permitting) and should definitely have Catt (who should have about 150 caps) playing outside him.

    I can’t really answer Mr Hollinshead’s comments as his grammar is so bad I can’t make head nor tail of what he is saying.

    And I never thought I’d see the day when Fergus King MBE had the nerve to comment on back play although I think he’ll agree that my omission from the squad is an absolute scandal.

  5. Earl, i cant remember writing a word of this. Are you typing all replies trying to make out you are an authority on rugby

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